The importance of collaboration; now more than ever

A topic probably discussed in most research conduct-related courses but yet probably commonly overlooked, is collaboration, especially in recent years. As humans, we have a strong need to socialize, aggregate — communicate. In fact, this need is so important that denying developing humans this thirst for contact leaves them with profound disturbances in cognitive function. For this reason, communication and collaboration are an integral part of any successful organization, especially involving humans. However, despite this obvious logic, many individuals fail to appreciate such an approach as a major means of solving problems in an effective manner.

As scientists, one of the things we hear talked about most is the funding situation. Recently, the NIH hasn’t been as generous, crippling research groups all around the country. It is simple: no funding, no research. This situation has also trickled into the job market, preventing long-time post-docs from receiving faculty positions. For this reason, it is a really important time to be collaborating in science—sharing resources, materials, insights, and ideas.

Innovative companies, such as Apple and Google, have designed their workplace in such a way as to maximize the amount of random interactions amongst its employees. This layout is built on the concept of promoting collaboration, and on the idea that it is the random collisions, conversations, and everyday gossip, that actually lead to the tiny sparks that ignite a creative flame. There probably isn’t any hard data directly linking this environmental layout to these company’s successes, but their products and ideas speak for themselves. It is surprising then that this type of thinking hasn’t really hit science, especially as many scientists harp on how creativity is necessary in science. However, maybe the new funding situation is the dawn of a new era.

Picky grant reviews and stingy grant awarders means that whatever money PI’s do receive is super precious. If there is any hope to receive a second or third grant in the future, it is imperative that research groups spend every dollar wisely, whether to publish exciting new data, or gather a body of preliminary data that will be used to justify a subsequent grant, money cannot be wasted. But it is. Plenty of lab groups spend their money on questions that haven’t been fully considered from all sides, on employees who watch the clock tick from 9 to 5, and on fancy equipment whose price never justifies its reward. Collaborative efforts can help prevent some of these shortcomings by bringing together scientists and labs with various technical skills, fresh perspectives, and useful equipment. Perhaps most importantly, strong collaboration can help answer scientific questions much more thoroughly than most labs can accomplish on their own, providing the publication of new, fascinating science.

Robust collaboration in science is on its way, whether anyone likes it or not. Lab groups will now have to actually work together (not just on paper), share ideas, share equipment, and hold each other accountable for providing nothing short of hard work, sound methods, creative ideas, and meaningful data. These collaborative projects, like at Google and Apple, will allow creativity to flow freely and for problems to be tackled from every angle, through the expertise of a variety of scientific disciplines, and from this non-traditional format, some of the best science ever imagined will be realized.

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